Saturday, May 11, 2019


The tucker box statue before the snappy recent one, photographed in 1926
The small town in the Murrumbidgee River has always been well placed to become a folklore hub. Established from around 1830, it was a natural meeting and stopping place for travelers of all kinds, including bullockies, overlanders, riverboaters, hawkers and people coming and going for whatever reasons.

Aboriginal traditions are strong on the ground, including bunyips, spirit dogs and other ghostly figures. There are lots of bushranger connections, a few gold rushes and lots of floods, including one Australia’s worst natural disasters, the big flood of 1852 that swept the town away and killed more than 70 people. 

The shearing song ‘Lazy Harry’s’, in its numerous versions, is well known, aided by a thumping melody. ‘Flash Jack’ the shearer comes from Gundagai and, of course, Jack O’Hagan’s composition ‘On the Road to Gundagai’ has remained a hit ever since it was composed in the 1920s.

Most familiar, of course, will be the famous dog and whatever it did on or in the tuckerbox at Gundagai, as the bullocky who tells the dismal tale put it:

I can forgive the blinking team I can forgive the rain,
I can forgive the dark and cold and go through it again,
I can forgive my rotten luck but hang me till I die,
I can’t forgive that bloody dog nine miles from Gundagai.

Less well-known is the legend of the ‘Gundagai cat’ that links the town back to the earliest days of convictism …

The Golden Grove was one of the First Fleet store shipssometimescalled ‘the Noah’s Ark of Australia’ due to the number and variety of livestock she conveyed to Botany Bay, including ‘one bull, four cows, and one calf; one stallion, three mares, and three colts; one ram, eleven sheep, and eight lambs; one billy-goat, four nanny goats, and three kids; one boar, five sows, and a litter of 14 pigs; nine different sorts of dogs; and seven cats’. 

In the 1870s it was said that one of these First Fleet cats was still living in at the amazing age of one hundred years at the New South Wales town of Gundagai. The centenarian moggy was so aloof she would only eat pork sausages. By the 1920s, the feline was said to have reached the even more advanced age of 190 years. This assertion was published in at least one English newspaper and picked up and reprinted in the American and Australian press. While the American’s swallowed the tale whole, the factoid was properly dismissed by Gundagai locals as what in those days was called a ‘mare’s nest’, meaning a grossly inaccurate claim, what we might today call an urban legend or just fake news. 

What a town! Have you got a better contender for Australia's folklore capital?

Monday, May 6, 2019


Gay Charmers at Yarrawalla, 1989

"You don't have to be a Rhodes scholar to sit down and play a piano or a banjo." That was Stewie Simms, stalwart piano player of the legendary Gay Charmers, the last continuing old time dance band in the country. In April, they celebrated sixty-plus years of playing for dances, deb balls and any other event where toe-tapping tunes were needed. Read all about it right here…, courtesy of the Gannawarra Times.

See also the Peter Ellis archive.

Thursday, May 2, 2019


Broken Hill's famous local delicacy is a classic example of folklore in action. In this case it's a traditional recipe that comes from - who knows where? It has become the signature dish of the town and its people and its name is now officially enshrined in the Macquarie Dictionary. Read all about it here.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019


William Strutt (English, 1825–1915) Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia, 1852, 1887

What are your favourites? Here’s my list:

Jack Donohoe
Wild Colonial Boy
The Death of Ben Hall
Bold Ben Hall
The Streets of Forbes
Dunn, Gilbert and Ben Hall
Frank Gardiner
Stringybark Creek
Ballad of the Kelly Gang
My Name is Edward Kelly
But there are a whole lot more to pick from. Chloe and Jason Roweth  have a couple of hundred in their repertoire and there might even be a few more lurking out there in folklore.

Take the once-mysterious ‘Johnny Troy’, for instance. There were several incidental mentions of him and his deeds in historical documents and folklore. He featured briefly in a poem titled ‘The Convict’s Tour to Hell’, probably composed by ‘Frank the Poet’ (Francis McNamara), in or before 1839. 

But that was about all anyone knew of this Irish bushranger until the 1950s, when American folksong collectors began to hear a ‘Johnny Troy’ ballad – mainly among lumber jacks. It seems that while Johnny Troy’s vigorous song had faded away in Australia, it had been well received by the Americans, who often sang it together with a couple of other Australian bushranger ballads, ‘Jack Donohoe’ and ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’. It is likely that these songs reached America during the California gold rushes, which explains how they got there. But there was still no news of the lost bushranger in Australia. Until some solid research by the late Stephan Williams turned up the whole true history of Johnny Troy.

You can read the full story on my Gristly History blog. You can also read some very interesting articles about bushrangers, murder ballads and associated delights on English journalist and author Paul Slade’s excellent website at PlanetSlade 

The hunt for the Governor gang of bushrangers. A posse of mounted police, aboriginal trackers and district volunteers (SLNSW)

Sunday, April 28, 2019


A while back I posted on the old Boomerang songsters and instruments, especially harmonicas (‘tin sandwich’, ‘mouth organ’, ‘harp’, ‘moothies’ in Scotland…). Imagine my delight to discover in the instrument makers’ stand at the National Folk Festival, ‘The Harp Dude’. With a table full of antique and reconditioned/improved tin sandwiches, Jamie told me about the wonderful things he does with old and new harps. It’s a labour of love and his website is definitely worth checking out.

Friday, April 26, 2019


A number of people at our parody session at this year's National Folk Festival asked for some samples to be put online. Here are a few of the countless many (scroll down to the second article titled ‘Pointed Parodies’). And, feel free to send in your own through the comments section of these posts.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019


Our various sessions were well attended and all went well. ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It’s Flavour?’ was a hoot, with a dozen players crowding the Trocadero stage. 

Rob and I were back there the next day for a two-hander on the wonderfully subversive subject of folk parodies. As usual, the audience knew as many, if not more, than we did. That’s a folklorist’s lot. 

Thanks to all who took part as audiences and performers and to all those organisers, volunteers and kindly folk who make the National Folk Festival happen every year, now for more than fifty of them. 

It’s all so engrossing, busy and enjoyable that it’s easy to forget the scale and achievement of the folk movement. People interested in musical, dance and other traditions have been coming together since the 1950s to practice, perform, learn and celebrate these often-fragile arts, crafts, skills and customs, practicing them at festivals, folk clubs and get-togethers. It’s all happened because people want to preserve, but also evolve, what are seen as valuable forms of community heritage and expressive culture. 

The National is the oldest of the festivals still running (long may it do so), but there are others all around the country, large and small, all dedicated to some aspect of ‘folk’. These days, they might get a bit of official funding and support, but they remain primarily volunteer events that allow folkies and broader communities to come together in a positive celebration of human art and life, something that seems to be needed more and more. 

See you there next year.


From The Folklore Society conference, Folklore and the Nation, 2019

After a few queries from various folk, I’ve put together a brief guide to what folklore is all about, with a focus on Australia’s diverse cultures.

There are some definitions, some examples, a ‘folklore FAQs’ section and a few reading references for anyone who really wants to get into it.

You’ll find it all here in the blog Articles section. 

 [Spoiler alert: there is no fixed or final definition].

Tuesday, April 23, 2019


Some modern composed murder ballads in the discussion at Australian Folk and Roots Music Forum:

but I’m after the more traditional street ballads and the like, generated through the mysterious processes of oral tradition. No one seems to have come up with any of these yet, other than a possible on the Gatton murders, though this seems more like a poem recently set to music. We certainly come across poems on old murders, not always in ballad form, but still looking for Australian examples of the type of thing at

On the evidence to date - or its absence - I’m sticking with my original observation that we haven’t traditionally, at least, been much interested in such narrative songs.

Saturday, April 13, 2019


Why are there no murder ballads in Australian folksong? 

Is it because Australians seem to have killed each other much less frequently than many other nationalities, so there’s not much demand for heart-rending songs about it? We have bushranger ballads, convict ballads, disaster ballads and some about jockeys dying in racecourse mishaps, as well as other joyful ditties. But what about songs like ‘The Red Barn’, the British ballad on the murder of Maria Marten in 1827. What about something like those classic American ‘down in some lone valley’ numbers?

While some imported British and American murder ballads have been collected here (though not many), it seems we’d prefer to make light of criminal demises in local compositions. The notorious ‘Pyjama Girl’ murder of 1934 is commemorated in our tradition in a light-hearted parody of the accused murderer to the jolly tune of ‘Funiculi Funicula’.

There is also a parody of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ relating to the death of Azaria Chamberlain.

Can’t we do better than this? 

Or have we? 

Maybe you know of a great Aussie murder ballad that has missed the attention of folksong collectors. Send it in, we’d love to include it in our collections.